New Insights on the Gospels

March for Life 2012

Evil triumphs when good men do nothing - Edmund Burke

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Women's role in the Church - Pope John Paul II

In the context of Christian anthropology, every human person has his or her dignity and as persons women have no less dignity than men. Too often, women are regarded as objects because of male egoism, of which there have been endless manifestations in the past and of which there are still many today. In today's situation there are all sorts of cultural and social reasons for this, and these need calm and objective consideration. Even so, it is not hard to detect the influence of a tendency to domination and arrogance, a tendency which has found and is still finding its victims especially among women and young girls.

However, the phenomenon has been and still is more general than this, having its origins has (as I wrote in Christifideles laici) 'in that unjust and deleterious mentality which considers the human being as a thing, as an object to buy and sell, as an instrument for selfish interests or for pleasure only' (n. 49).

The Christian laity are called to fight against all the forms which this mentality takes, including advertising, which is motivated by the intention to accelerate the frenetic race for consumer goods. But women themselves have a duty to play their part in obtaining respect for their personality, by not lowering themselves to any form of complicity with anything which militates against their dignity.

Perfection for women does not mean being like men, masculizing themselves until they lose their specifically womanly qualities. Their perfection - with its self-affirmation and relative autonomy - is to be women, equal to men but different. In civil society and in the Church too, the fact that women are equal and different has to be recognized. Difference does not mean an inevitable and almost implacable opposition. In the Bible story of the creation, co-operation between man and woman is laid down as the condition for the development of the human race and for its work of mastering the universe: 'Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it' (Genesis 1:28). In the light of this command from the Creator, the Church holds that 'the married couple and the family constitute the first and basic expression of the social dimension of the faithful' (Christifideles laici 40). On a more general plane we may say that the renewal of the temporal order can only come about by the co-operation of men and women.

Women have understanding, sensitive, compassionate hearts, giving them a tactful and practical approach to charity. In the Church, we know, there have always been many women - religious and lay, mothers of families and single women - who have devoted their lives to alleviating human suffering. What wonderful pages they have contributed to the annals of dedication to the needs of the poor, the sick, the infirm, the paralyzed, and all those rejected by society, both in former times and in today's world. How many names leap from heart to lips when we only intend to make a passing mention of those heroic figures who exercised charity with a tact and skill entirely feminine, be it within the family or in Institutes, in hospitals or in dealing with people vulnerable to moral anguish, oppression or exploitation. Nothing of this escapes God's eye, and the Church too treasures the names and exemplary activities of those many, many noble representatives of charity; sometimes she enters them in the register of her Saints.

A significant field for the female apostolate in the Church is that of contributing to the Liturgy. Women's attendance at church services, where they usually outnumber the men, shows their commitment to the Faith, their spiritual sensitivity, their inclination to piety and their attachment to liturgical prayer and the Eucharist.

In this co-operation of women with the priest and other members of the faithful in the eucharistic celebration, we may see a type of the Virgin Mary's cooperation with Christ in the Incarnation and the Redemption. Ecce ancilla Domini: 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word' (Luke 1:38). Mary is the model of Christian womanhood, spreading the mystery of the incarnate and redeeming Word through the world.

The true promotion of women consists in promoting them to that which is proper to them and suited to them as women - that is, as creatures different from men, called, no less than men, to be a model of human personality. This is 'emancipation' as indicated and intended by Jesus, who wished to assign women a mission of their own, appropriate to their natural difference from men. Discharging this mission allows women to develop their personalities and thus to serve humanity, and particularly the Church, in a way consistent with their qualities.

Quite recently and even in Catholic circles, a claim has been advanced by some women to be admitted to the priestly ministry. The claim is in fact based on a false assumption. For the ministerial priesthood is not a job which one can take on the basis of social qualification or legal procedures, but only in obedience to the will of Christ. Now, Jesus entrusted the task of the ministerial priesthood to members of the male sex alone. In spite of having also invited certain women to follow him and in spite of having asked them to work with him, he did not call or admit any of them to the group whom he had entrusted with the ministerial priesthood of his Church. His will is made plain by the sum of his behaviour, as also by significant actions, which Christian tradition has always interpreted as pointers to be followed.

Thus we see from the Gospel that Jesus never sent women on preaching missions, as he did the group of the Twelve, who were all men (Luke 9:1-6); similarly with the Seventy-Two, among whom no female presence is mentioned (Luke 10:1-20). Only to the Twelve does Jesus give authority over the Kingdom: 'Now I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father conferred one on me' (Luke 22:29). Only on the Twelve does he confer the mission and power of repeating the Eucharist on his behalf (Luke 22:19). Only to the Apostle does he give the power to remit sins (John 20:22-23) and to undertake the work of universal evangelization (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16.:16-18).

Christ's will was followed by the Apostles and by those subsequently responsible for the earliest communities, thus giving rise to the Christian tradition which has been in force in the Church ever since. I felt it my duty to confirm this tradition in my Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis (22 May 1994),declaring that 'the Church has no power whatever to confer priestly ordination on women, and that this ruling should be held as definitive by all the Church's faithful' (n. 4). Here faithfulness to the pastoral ministry as instituted by Christ is at stake.

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